I am a P-51 convert. The sound of that Packard/Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12 and the scream that a Mustang has while pulling through a hard turn gives me goose-bumps. The Mustang is, for lack of a better word, beautiful. Or is it? Let me go back and start this story over a little further back.
There is perhaps no other aircraft in the world that gets more superlatives directed its way than the P-51 Mustang. I have heard it called sleek, perfect and even sexy. For many years I never really subscribed to this logic and in a sense all the attention the Mustang garnered made me less interested in it. It seemed over-studied and too often talked about. What was all the hype about? I knew of the Mustang’s accomplishments but thought some of the other World War II fighters were shortchanged. Then I saw one in flight. Forgive the more than likely used before cliché, but the Mustang is simply poetry in motion. As I watched that Mustang carve through the beautiful blue fall sky, its smooth lines invoked in my mind all of those words I had heard so many times before. The Mustang stirs something in the hearts of many. The below video from ASB.tv should give you an idea of how the Mustang is perceived by many.
With all that in mind however, comes the question of what exactly makes an aircraft “pretty,” or for that matter “ugly”? I love hearing from aircrew that have flown on aircraft here at the Museum. A casual observer might think the former aircrews were talking about an old friend or past girlfriend with the kind of descriptions you hear. There is this certain life that is brought to an aircraft by the stories told about them. It makes me stop and look at in-animate objects that I pass by every day here in a completely new way. The men who flew and served on them loved them, cursed them and gave them nicknames. Our MH-53M Pave Low is an absolutely beastly aircraft that is ugly as can be, in the most beautiful way. I have heard it referred to as “sick-too-sick”, in reference to its serial number which ends in 626 and its penchant for being a maintenance magnet. It is always great to hear these endearments and nicknames, whether they are positive or negative in connotation.
Remember that P-51 that I mentioned earlier? Remember how beautiful I said those sleek lines looked carving through a blue sky? It is doubtful that if a German soldier in 1944 was asked what he thought of the P-51 he would have used any of the same descriptions. But I would imagine a U.S. soldier from the same time period would. Perspective changes everything someone once told me, and perspective changes a lot when it comes to the aircraft here at the Museum of Aviation. The A-10, B-1B, AC-130A and F-4D we have here are all fine case studies about what I am going to call perspective based beauty recognition.
“The sound of freedom” is what many that live near military bases call the noise of aircraft flying overheard. That sound means a much different thing to those on the opposite side of the battlefield from the aircraft that make them. In Iraq and Afghanistan U.S. fighters and bombers have taken to flying high-speed, low-level passes over enemy fighters to intimidate them. Next time you are out and about and hear or see one of those big, loud military aircraft flying above you, take a minute to think about how perspective changes perception, especially when it comes to the machines of war.